The Black Panther Party: A History We Can Learn From (by Edgar Morelos)

TITLE

The Black Panther Party: A History We Can Learn From

STANDARDS (Grades 11-12)

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

OVERVIEW

Through an in-depth analysis of primary and secondary sources about the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), students will be able to engage in an exercise that will allow them to use their critical thinking skills to challenge dominant narratives about the BPP and the American democratic system.

FRAMEWORK

This lesson plan has several objectives at hand. First, it is meant to introduce the students to a brief historical analysis of the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s COINTELPRO. This will require them to research and cite textual evidence from various primary and secondary sources. Second, this will allow them to practice their reading comprehension since they will have to make connections and identify central ideas and information about a topic from various sources. Thirdly, the homework assignments will then allow them to practice their writing skills.

In addition, the lesson plan will encourage the student to think critically about the conventional sources information they have been exposed to regarding social and political movements. This lesson plan will be facilitated by the readings which describe the ideology of the BPP and the tactics of state repression used by the FBI. The discussion questions and homework assignments will help guide the class into a better understating of the BPP and FBI’s COINTELPRO and allow them to determine the significance of such actions.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING

The goal of this lesson plan is for the student to develop a critical perspective on the role the u.s. government has played in the suppression of alternative political ideologies traditionally expressed my marginalized groups like the Black Panther Party.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

  1. Who was the Black Panther Party?
  2. What are the dominant narratives about the BPP?
  3. What were some of the tactics the FBI used to attack the BPP, and can you describe the effects it had on the party?
  4. Why was the FBI trying to undermine and dismantle the BPP?
  5. Why were all the FBI activities undercover and kept a secret from the American public?
  6. What do COINTELPRO’s actions against the BPP tell you about the u.s. government?
  7. What can we learn from the history of the BPP and COINTELPRO in relation to past, present, and future social and political movements?

GLOSSARY

  • Imperialism – “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force. [i] Black Panther’s definition, “economic exploitation by this country of nonwhite people around the world…”[ii]
  • Capitalism – “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”[iii] According to the Black Panthers, it is “the existing exploitative system” which benefits the rich whites but not the poor people of color.[iv]
  • Colonialism – “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”[v]
  • Pigs – term used by the Black Panthers to refer to police officers.
  • Oppression – “the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control.”[vi]
  • Discrimination – “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, [gender,] or sex.”[vii]
  • Elites – “In political and sociological theory, an elite is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power.”[viii]
  • Racism – “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”[ix]
  • State – term used to describe a country or nation. In this case the state is the u.s. government.

INTRODUCTION

Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther, once said, “Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions. Shaped by our oppression.”[x] In the case of the BPP, the Panthers were created by the terrible living conditions in their marginalized communities and shaped by an oppressive racist system. In the 1960s, many Blacks were a part of the Civil Rights Movement and witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two legislations acknowledged the requests of the Black community and ended the majority of legal forms of segregation; however, the state failed to provide a legitimate avenue for Blacks to gain political and economic power. As two former Panthers stated, “although Black people were formally full citizens, most remained ghettoized, impoverish, and politically subordinated, with few channels for redress.”[xi] As a result of these circumstances, the majority of blacks where “isolated to into poor urban ghettos with lack of access to decent employment or higher education.”[xii] Frustrated by these conditions, many young Blacks began to reject the civil rights non-violent politics and were drawn to more radical and revolutionary politics, like those of Malcolm X. Then on February 21st, 1965, just as Malcolm X’s radical ideas were beginning to gather support he was assassinated; his death, considered by many to be an act of the state, “came to symbolize the struggle for Black liberation [and] everything the Civil Rights Movement promised but could not deliver.”[xiii] As a result, it was this terrible environment, disastrous circumstances and horrible political and economic oppression that shaped the young Blacks and led to the creation of the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was officially created in 1966, when two community college students from Oakland California, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, decided to “reject the legitimacy of the u.s. government” and declared “themselves part of a global revolution against American imperialism.”[xiv] The Black Panther Party began as a collective effort by community members to protect themselves against the violence and abuses from the state’s racist police department. As Huey Newton once stated, “because Black people desire to determine their own destiny, they are constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied in the police department.”[xv] The violence came in many shapes and forms, ranging from racist remarks, to beatings and assassinations of innocent Black people.  As a result, the majority of Panther’s early actions were a direct response to the police brutality and harassment of Blacks in the ghettos, and their desire to change this environment. As the BPP transitioned and expanded beyond policing the police, they started developing community based programs aimed at providing the basic needs for their people. These programs were incredibly successful and not only helped the community but they increase membership and support for the party. One of them was the Breakfast Program, which provided free daily breakfasts to children in the community, since many of them would go to school on an empty stomach. In a matter of years, the Free Breakfast Program became the most respected and popular of the BPP’s programs, which included: liberation schools, free clinics, child development centers, renter’s assistance, senior escorts, pest control, legal aid, pluming, and free housing cooperatives.[xvi] As a result of the these programs, the BPP rapidly increased its support among various communities across the nation and quickly became one of the largest and most organized parties in the country.

The success of the Black Panther Party’s community programs brought enormous support and growth to the organization, but it also drew the attention of the state. The BPP rapid growth of support and membership prompted the state to conduct a study on them. Conducted by several government agencies, the research “expressed grave concern about wide support for the party among young Blacks, nothing that ’45 percent of Blacks under 21 years of age [have]…a great respect for the [Black Panther Party].’”[xvii]  Upon this realization, the u.s. government and FBI began to take action against the Black Panther Party.

MATERIALS

Glick, Brian War At Home: Covert Action Against u.s. Activists and What We Can Do About It (South End Press: Boston, 1999). http://whale.to/b/glick_b.html.

Churchill, Ward. Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (South End Press: Boston, 1988).

The Black Panther Party Platform, 1966 http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111bppp.html

Official COINTELPRO Letter, 1969

http://www.publiceye.org/liberty/FBI_Files/MA/Boston1969A.pdf.

Official COINTELPRO Letter, 1977

http://www.publiceye.org/liberty/FBI_Files/MA/Boston1970B.pdf.

ACTIVITIES

#1 – Homework

At the end of the last class, before this lesson plan is to be implemented, the teacher should assign the students the following homework, without giving any introduction or background on the BPP or COINTELPRO. Students are to do their own individual research and look to answer the following questions:

  • Who was the Black Panther Party?
  • What is the dominant narrative about the BPP?

Teacher should tell the students that there will be a discussion on their individual findings during the first half of the class. Therefore, it is recommended that they take notes on their findings and the sources from which they obtained this information. Make a note that Wikipedia will not count as a source.

# 2 – Discussion, Introduction and In Class Readings

During the first half of the class, teacher should break up the classroom into groups of about 5-6 students. Teacher must notify the students that they will have some time, plan accordingly, to discuss their findings amongst them. Then, they will assign two reporters who will present to the class what they talked in their groups. It would be beneficial if they assigned another student to write their findings on the board for all to see. For the next half of the class, teacher should follow these steps. First, teacher will read the Introduction, providing some background on the Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. When doing this, the teacher should point out the key differences, similarities or new findings based on the student’s research. Second, the teacher will hand out the excerpt from War at Home titled “COINTELPRO: Cover Action Against the Domestic Dissidents of the 1960s.” This information is available on the link and teacher can easily make a handout of it using Microsoft Word. The reading is short and should leave some time in class for the next part. Third, the teacher should facilitate another discussion based on what they just read. This one will be open to the class room, unrestricted and student should be encouraged to share anything they want. The teacher should refrain from answering questions. She or he should let the student engage in possible answers between themselves. This will create a sense of wonder and intrigue amongst the students. Lastly, the teacher will assign the following homework.

# 3 – Homework

Students are to read the following:

  • Chapter 3 from Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement entitled “COINTELPRO – Black Panther Party”
  • Black Panther Party Platform from 1966
  • Two official COINTELPRO letters from 1969 and 1977

Also, distribute the handout with the list of key terms for the students to follow the readings. Teacher should notify them that there will be another discussion the next day and all students will be asked to share their answers, thoughts, and comments. They are to answer the following questions in written format:

  • What were some of the tactics the FBI used to attack the BPP, and can you describe the effects it had on the party?
  • Why do you think the u.s. and FBI were trying to undermine and dismantle the BPP?
  • Why were all the FBI activities undercover and kept a secret from the American public?
  • What do COINTELPRO’s actions against the BPP tell you about the u.s. government?

# 4 – Class Discussion

Here, the teacher should devote the entire class time to discuss all of the questions in that order. These are critical questions that should organically develop a deep conversation and discussion. Again, the teacher should act as a facilitator and encourage all students to participate, not dictate or allow one or few students to dominate the conversation. As the conversation develops and it reaches the last question, the professor should emphasize how the u.s. is supposed to represent a democracy with freedom of speech, assembly and rule of law. Lastly, the teacher should allow for about 20 minutes of class for the last part of the lesson. This will consist of the last question, which the teacher should write on the board. The students are to be given 7-8 minutes to answer the question. The question is,

  • What can we learn from the history of the BPP and COINTELPRO in relation to past, present, and future social and political movements?

Then, the remaining time will be given to any student who wishes to share her/his response. Lastly, the teacher is to assign a final reflection assignment. This assignment is to be completely open and free to the students. Here the teacher should handout the information on the Additional Sources, in case any student is interest in learning more about the Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO and would like to include that information on the final reflection paper. In short this paper is meant to have the students reflect and see if their perspective on the Black Panther Party or the u.s. government has changed.Lastly, the teacher should write down the following quote on the board, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

ADDITIONAL SOURCES

Bloom, Joshua. Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History of the Black Panther Party (University of California: Los Angeles, 2013).

FBI.gov. “COINTELPRO.” 2015. http://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/

Moore, Dhoruba. “Strategies of Repression Against the Black Movement” The Black Scholar 12 (Spring, 1981), 10-16.

PBS.org, “1971: Independent Lens.” 2015. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/1971/film.html.

Shakur, Assata. Assata Shakur: An Autobiography (Lawrence Hill Books:  Chicago, 1987).

Smith, Baxter. “New Evidence of FBI ‘Disruption’ Program” The Black Scholar 6 (Summer, 1975), 43-48.

Citations

[i] Google Dictionary. Just type the words, “Define: Imperialism” in the search bar.

[ii] Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History of the Black Panther Party (University of California: Los Angeles, 2013), 41.

[iii] Google Dictionary.

[iv] Bloom and Martin, 195.

[v] Google Dictionary.

[vi]  Google Dictionary.

[vii]  Google Dictionary.

[viii] Google Dictionary.

[ix]  Google Dictionary.

[x]  Bloom and Martin, 12.

[xi]  Ibid, 12.

[xii] Ibid, 12.

[xiii] Ibid, 27.

[xiv] Ibid, 2.

[xv] Ibid, 2.

[xvi] Ibid, 184.

[xvii] Ibid, 4.

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